Cover Story: The high price of development
As the Edgewood neighborhood gets pricier, what will happen to its Section 8 housing?
There's a yellow brick house on Hosea Williams Drive where Nikki Lawson's grandparents lived for 52 years. They raised nine kids in that little two-bedroom, including Lawson's mother. Though Lawson never lived there, she has fond memories of the yellow house. Like the rest of Edgewood, a lot has changed since Lawson's grandfather, by then a widower, sold the home 15 years ago. For one, when her grandparents lived there, the house wasn't yellow. "How tacky is that," Lawson says, half smiling. "It was brick. It looked nice. Leave it brick."
Lawson, 34, is still in Edgewood. She lives just a few blocks away in an affordable-housing complex called Edgewood Court Apartments. In the early 2000s, she began hearing rumors that her employer would be making cuts. Her sister, ever conscientious, pleaded with Lawson to be prudent in case her income suddenly disappeared. "'You gotta get to where it's stable, to a based-on-income apartment,'" Lawson says her sister advised.
Lawson applied to several Section 8 housing developments in the hopes of securing a steady, affordable rent. With Section 8 housing, a tenant is obligated to pay no more than 30 percent of her income toward rent. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) pays the difference. Affordable housing is becoming scarcer in the city, and complexes like Edgewood Court less common. In Atlanta, between 2010 and 2014, the number of rental units that cost $750 or less per month went down by 16.3 percent, while the number that cost more than $1,500 increased by 56.4 percent.
Two years after applying for housing assistance, she got the call from Edgewood Court saying there was an opening. Lawson, who had three young children and another on the way, went from paying more than $700 per month plus utilities for a two-bedroom to paying $300 per month for a four-bedroom where her kids could have more space.
The reduced rent has allowed Lawson to contribute to the neighborhood in many ways while raising her kids. She's the PTA president of nearby Whitefoord Elementary School, which she attended as a child, and is involved in several other parent groups. When Edgewood Court children walk home from school, she's one of the people making sure they get there safely. After more than a decade at Edgewood Court, she knows almost every resident.
Lawson also knows that living at Edgewood Court, at least in recent years, means living with shootings at the complex, sometimes right outside her back door. This past New Year's Eve was a frightening one for Lawson and other residents. Two Instagram videos from that night show a young man shooting an automatic weapon into the air at least 60 times.
"It was nonstop," Lawson says. "Like, 'Y'all not out of bullets yet?' Please stop."
Lawson's neighbor, Sarah Clark, was home with her grandkids that night. "I got my children and we went into the bathroom till it was over," Clark says. "'Cause a bullet don't have no name."
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Edgewood Court is located directly behind Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School and about a mile from Kirkwood's busy downtown full of restaurants, bars, and coffee shops. Property values have skyrocketed here in recent years as affluent individuals have moved into town. Bungalows are having their roofs ripped off and are being used as bases for three-story houses. The median sale price for a home in Edgewood has gone from roughly $100,000 five years ago to about $300,000 today. NPU-O, which includes Edgewood, Kirkwood, East Lake, and the Villages at East Lake, has gone from 86 percent black in 2000 to 59 percent in 2010. Transformation is occurring so quickly in the neighborhoods that a house shot up in a drive-by last July was listed for $300,000 by May.
For many of the reasons it's becoming popular with newcomers, Edgewood has long been great for people of lesser means, says Nathan Dean, the co-pastor of Edgewood Church.
"Our neighborhood has got so many great resources for people of low income to move up in the world," he says, noting the neighborhood's schools, proximity to MARTA, and the Boys and Girls Club. "It's just a great place for people that are struggling to get by and people that are on the lower end of society to have ways to climb up."
Due to the dwindling supply of affordable housing in Atlanta, more than 80 percent of households with incomes below $35,000 spend more than half of their income on rent. Nationally, only one in four households that qualifies for subsidized housing actually receives it. It's rare that these households land in a conveniently located neighborhood with resources like Edgewood. Most end up in a private market for rentals that overcharges and isolates low-income tenants.
Right now big questions are weighing on Edgewood residents' minds: Will the neighborhood lose its diversity as it gets more expensive? How can the neighborhood be made safer? And avoid displacing its lower-income residents? What should and will happen to Edgewood Court Apartments, one of the last bastions of truly affordable housing in the middle of an increasingly affluent neighborhood?
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THE ATLANTA HOUSING AUTHORITY is famous for having knocked down its giant public housing complexes starting in the mid'90s and replacing many of them with mixed-income developments. As a Section 8 complex, Edgewood Court was separate from this model but is still a remnant of that earlier era of affordable housing. Even Nadine Washington of H.J Russell, which owns Edgewood Court, says the complex's design is outdated and "not conducive for multi-family living."
Deirdre A. Oakley of Georgia State University has studied public housing in Atlanta and says Section 8 complexes like Edgewood Court are "the least regulated in terms of housing conditions." She says in these types of situations, where a pocket of subsidized housing remains in an increasingly expensive neighborhood, there are several possible scenarios. "The residents moving into the high-priced housing view the Section 8 housing and the tenants as problematic. So tensions surface. Pressure is put on city officials." Another possible scenario, she says, is that owners of Section 8 housing eventually decide to sell or restore the property for market rate rentals. In those situations, the residents may have no choice but to relocate and join the long waiting lists for affordable housing in Atlanta.
"The consequence," Oakley says, "is an affordability crisis where poor households who can't get some form of a subsidy end up in subpar housing run by slumlords who overcharge them."
Dan Immergluck, a Georgia Tech professor who has conducted some of the most in-depth research into affordability in Atlanta, says there is "great concern" about project-based Section 8 housing being lost, "especially in gentrifying and other 'high-opportunity neighborhoods.' This is especially critical where the housing serves children."
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Section 8 has generally gotten a bad rap, Immergluck says, but for the most part has been a successful program. In changing neighborhoods, those units provide "some bulwark against complete gentrification, and thereby the ability for some long-term neighborhood diversity." If there are crime issues, the owner and police should address them. And if the property is not maintained properly, HUD is supposed to step in.
"If we simply allow these families to be displaced, they will almost certainly end up in places with fewer opportunities — especially less access to transportation and good schools," Immergluck says. "That will be a net loss, especially in the long run."
"The crisis low income people face regarding housing is severe and deep," says Larry Keating, author of Atlanta: Race, Class and Urban Expansion. Keating has personally seen ugly class wars in Peoplestown, Mechanicsville, and Candler Park, where he lives. "New, gentrifying residents are frequently vicious and often attribute crime to any person who is poor, particularly if they are not white," he says.
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THE OUTSIDE WALLS of Edgewood Court's units are brown. The porches and handrails are a darker brown, and the slanted roofs don alternating brown and gray shingles. The complex has 204 units that range from one to four bedrooms and that are scattered among two-story buildings overlooking one of 10 parking lots. There is a community garden with vegetables growing in plastic baskets so the older residents don't have to lean too far down to plant. There is a covered barbecue pit that is rarely used, a playground, nicely groomed lawns, and shady trees throughout the property.
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Edgewood Court as it looks today was refurbished in 1981 by H.J. Russell & Company, which bills itself as "one of the largest minority-owned real estate development and construction services firms in the United States." As owner of the property and recipients of HUD rental income, H.J. Russell is responsible for the health and safety of Edgewood Court residents and those people living in the vicinity of the complex.
The inside of a trailer near the playground is decorated like an elementary school because it hosts an after-school program. A column holding the roof up has been creatively transformed into a tree, paper lanterns dangle from the ceiling, and a "Kids at Work" construction sign demands you treat this room like the learning center it is. There are a lot of children at Edgewood Court Apartments: About 90 percent of the tenants are single mothers, all black, and many living in their own apartment for the first time.
In May, the Edgewood Court common room, where the few senior residents play bingo and take exercise classes, is still decorated with purple ribbons from a Mardi Gras party. Down the hall, Edgewood Court's rental office is home to an enormous screen showing 30 or so surveillance feeds from cameras placed strategically across the property and upgraded in March in response to the recent shootings.
In VICE's much debated 2015 webseries "Noisey Atlanta," the host hangs out with rapper Young Scooter at Edgewood Court a few minutes after a shooting. In 2010, a man who later died was found behind one of the complex's buildings with multiple gunshot wounds. In 2013, an off-duty officer was shot and injured while working security at the complex. And in January this year, a 15-year-old was shot in the middle of the afternoon, an accident according to APD Zone 6 commander Major Timothy D. Peek.
Atlanta Police Department statistics show that overall crime in the Edgewood neighborhood where Edgewood Court is located has dropped slightly in recent years. Burglaries and theft make up 95 percent of crimes in Edgewood, which has not had a reported rape or homicide since 2013. While 2014 was a relatively crime-heavy year at Edgewood Court — with 26 burglaries and 14 assaults, compared to 15 burglaries and 6 assaults in 2013 — total neighborhood crime in 2015 was at a five-year low, down 10.6 percent since 2011. There have been three arrests for marijuana possession in 2016 so far. (There were seven in 2015.) But some residents and neighbors say that much of the crime in the complex, including drug dealing they say they see, goes unreported and that the crime spills out into the surrounding area.
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It's challenging to reduce crime at Edgewood Court because the complex is spread across a large parcel of land and built along public streets. There are just two streets where you can enter. Neither is gated and both are on the west side. The police can't just drive up and tell someone to leave because they're on private property. That takes real-time coordination with management and residents.
Washington says H.J. Russell has made a strong effort to combat crime at Edgewood Court. She says the company has put in "an exorbitant amount of financial investment to make sure that everything we can do is done." That investment includes working with a security consultant, hiring an off-duty police officer to patrol the community, meeting with APD Zone 6 monthly, and paying for several of the new surveillance cameras to be monitored by a third-party vendor and APD's Video Integration Center.
Since January 2014, H.J. Russell has evicted 18 Edgewood Court tenants due to criminal activity, and three more evictions were pending as of mid-May. "Crimes in the Edgewood community have drastically reduced since the installation of the cameras and increased security efforts," a representative from H.J. Russell wrote in a statement, specifically citing a reduction in Part I crimes — which include criminal homicide, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson — from more than 5 per month to less than 2 per month.
But the Part I crimes category does not include random celebratory gunfire, and people who live in Edgewood Court and the surrounding areas say shootings — often in the air, not necessarily aimed at people — are an ongoing issue that needs addressing. While 911 calls are an imperfect indicator, there have been at least 170 calls about shootings at Edgewood Court over the past three years, a quarter of all shooting calls in the Edgewood neighborhood over that same time period. But APD does not know exactly who's pulling the triggers, says Major Peek.
"We can't say for certain whether those people shooting live there or not," he says. "I've received pictures sometimes, but they're not conclusive with any kind of legitimate evidence. Then the other thing you have to keep in mind is, in Georgia, everybody has the right to have a gun."
But, Peek says, "Doesn't mean they have the right to shoot it in the air."
Omar Zaki, the current president of the Organized Neighbors of Edgewood, says while random gunfire is a huge problem, he doesn't see an effective path to dealing with it.
"It's over very quickly," he says. "The people who see it, out of fear or personal desire, don't want to talk about it to the police." Zaki believes that crime in the neighborhood, which includes Edgewood Court, is a long-term issue. Dean agrees.
"What people want is to rip it off, make it go away. And it just takes chipping away at it," Dean says. "There's a progression and things are getting better."
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Sarah Clark has lived at Edgewood Court for almost 19 years. She helps the younger mothers like Lawson watch over their kids. Clark's apartment is filled with pictures of the children and grandchildren she's raised.
"I'm the big mama in this building right here," she says, "and I love everybody." But she doesn't love what's happened to Edgewood Court over the past few years. The shootings and the drug dealing have become too much, she says. "I think if they had the police out here, just here constantly, that would help. But coming every now and then — when crime happens, you coming — that ain't doing no good. We need this every single day."
Michelle Jiles, 49, has lived at Edgewood Court for two stints — for five years starting in the late '90s, and for the past year and a half — and has three daughters who lived here as well. She agrees that Edgewood Court isn't what it used to be. When Jiles first came from South Carolina via New York, she was here visiting a friend.
"I liked what I saw," she says. "I saw that black people were actually getting along and coming together and it was a very family-oriented neighborhood."
But now Jiles believes crime and management that she says doesn't care about upkeep of the property or safety are bringing the place down. There was crime back in the day, she says, but it came from the surrounding neighborhood, not Edgewood Court. "It was a very safe community. ... They cared about the area, they cared about us."
She no longer feels that way. "It's not a safe place," she says.
Clark also says that management is a factor in the lack of safety and general livability. When she first moved to Edgewood Court, she says the yard was clean. Now, when she goes outside she sees liquor bottles and condom wrappers. "It's nothing like it was," she says. She fears for the safety of her grandkids when they visit and for her daughter when she comes by to pick them up. "Edgewood ain't been that bad, but it has gone down," she says, "because of poor management." Clark says she's seen improvement in recent months since they installed the cameras, "but it could be better. Much better."
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IN THE "NOISEY ATLANTA" EPISODE, the host points out the large loft building that stands beside Edgewood Court. Located on Arizona Avenue, AZ2 is one of two buildings in the Arizona Loft development. "This is pretty thoroughly the projects," he says, "but right overlooking it ... is this huge super-minimalist kind of like million-dollar yuppie houses."
While the building is far from affordable housing and looks as he describes it, units in AZ2, which was built in 2007, range in price from the low- to mid-200s. More remarkable is AZ2's proximity to Edgewood Court. Several of the building's units loom directly over the apartment complex.
AZ2 residents, none of whom would speak on the record for this story, have mixed feelings about the neighboring apartment complex. They point to car break-ins that they attribute to teens in Edgewood Court and say they've called 911 dozens of times since the beginning of the year. Some say they want the apartments gone.
"I consider everyone in there my enemy," says one AZ2 resident who says she sleeps with her shotgun. On social media, another AZ2 resident fed up with the gunshots described Edgewood Court as a "plague" and said it should be bulldozed. He called the people doing the shooting "savages."
Others have a less severe point of view.
"There are Edgewood Court residents in there that don't like the living conditions, that don't feel safe in there," one AZ2 resident says. "Nobody wants to displace somebody because of their income or because of their current situation, but you also shouldn't live in fear and have to have your kids sleeping on the floor and deal with drug dealing and gun fights. ... It's such a big piece of property, it's a catalyst for the neighborhood whether it's good or bad."
Other neighbors of Edgewood Court such as Marlon Kautz — one of the more divisive figures in Edgewood due to his affiliation with Copwatch of East Atlanta, an organization that monitors local police activity to prevent mistreatment within the community — are appalled by the thinking of some Arizona Lofts residents.
"The character of this neighborhood is very much defined by the people who have been here for a long time, and I think Edgewood Court is part of that," Kautz says. "I think the perception of a lot of people moving into this neighborhood is that Edgewood Court is out of place. It's this weird little enclave of poor black people in a neighborhood that is otherwise kind of 'upscale and friendly.' And that's not my experience at all. My experience is that that is the neighborhood. That's the neighborhood that I moved into, a mostly working-class black neighborhood."
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In Edgewood, a motorcycle club can be down the block from a church, you can get a $5 haircut in a guy's apartment, and your neighbor might park a school bus in the backyard. Edgewood is public gardens, free tennis lessons, and loud music, historic bungalows and modern homes and towering lofts and Section 8 housing. It's painted and unpainted bricks all at once. Everyone can agree that the one thing Edgewood isn't is static or simplistic.
"They want a safe neighborhood just like everybody else," Nikki Lawson says of Edgewood Court's neighbors. "I can understand that because if I'm not safe why would I pay for a house?"
Clark agrees that Edgewood Court has deep flaws, though it's housed her for the better part of two decades. "To be honest, I thank god that I have a place to stay," Clark says, "but I'd rather stay somewhere else."
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AFTER THE NEW YEAR'S GUNFIRE VIDEOS spread around the web in February, a neighborhood meeting was held at Dean's Edgewood Church. Among the 50 attendees, there was talk about shutting down Edgewood Court. Afterward, Dean wrote a letter on the neighborhood-based social networking site Nextdoor, and the discussion got heated, with some commenters getting angry that Dean brought up race. Others, however, agreed that race could not be separated from the discussion since Edgewood Court is predominantly black and most people at the meeting were white.
"Anytime that you deal with crime, race is always involved," Dean says. And it's difficult to keep race out of such a discussion when the consequences will mostly affect low-income African-Americans in a neighborhood with a history of violent racism. As recently as the 1960s, two houses in Edgewood were literally burned to the ground by arsonists when they were bought by black families, according to Kevin M. Kruse's book White Flight. An index created by the website FiveThirtyEight, based on 2010 census data, ranked Atlanta the second most segregated city in the country. If Edgewood Court is razed to build more half million dollar homes, it will mean further separation of black and white, of rich and poor.
Dean, who is white and a strong advocate both for neighborhood safety and for keeping Edgewood Court residents in Edgewood, founded and runs the Edgewood Security Patrol, a group that pays for extra off-duty APD officer patrols for members in the neighborhood. In his office on Memorial Drive, he has a framed map of the area with a string delineating Edgewood's border. He and his wife, Carrie, who run the church together, moved here eight years ago specifically to work in an urban, economically distressed area.
"Edgewood is our parish. So the people we look out for are not just the people in the church, not just inside these four walls, but the entire parish," Dean says. "Anytime that you're advocating for Edgewood Court to get shut down, you're advocating for a thousand poor black people's homes to be taken away from them in order to make the neighborhood safer, or what you think is safer. For a lot of people who have been here longer, the crime situation is significantly better, radically better, than what it was two and three years ago and 10 years ago."
Though H.J. Russell owns a valuable piece of property in Edgewood Court, for now the company hasn't made any decisions about selling or redeveloping the complex. H.J. Russell's current Section 8 contract runs through May 31, 2017. To convert the Section 8 units at Edgewood Court to market-rate, the owner would have to give a one-year notice to the feds and tenants informing them of the decision to end the subsidized housing.
Some have suggested transforming Edgewood Court into a property similar to the Retreat, a mixed-income property just down the road that was built with support from the Zeist Foundation and that has won a couple of urban design awards. When the blighted Section 8 apartments formerly occupying the Retreat parcels were knocked down, tenants were relocated and offered the chance to come back when the buildings opened. None of the tenants returned.
As nice as the Retreat appears, if Edgewood Court were knocked down and rebuilt, the people living there now might exit the neighborhood forever. Tear down Edgewood Court and you might lose the crime, but you might also lose 204 units worth of people who waited years to get here. You might lose Lawson, Whitefoord Elementary's PTA president, a woman whose family history in Edgewood dates back to before the Civil Rights Movement.
Conversation needs to happen around change, says Dean. "If you just don't think about other people and you continue to build and develop and you don't intentionally make ways for people to continue living among you, then they'll just naturally get run out."
The Section 8 program is imperfect and less expansive than it needs to be, but it's one of Atlanta's few tools offering much-needed rental assistance to low-income households. Edgewood Court reflects the program: It's flawed, but it's an equalizer, an investment in the future for people like Nikki Lawson and her children.